Project Management Institute

PMI's Future 50: Rising Young Project Leaders

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

A senior engineer focused on the future of space exploration and the next generation of STEM talent that will take us there; a senior project manager using data to unlock opportunities and drive change; and a CEO digitizing logistics and connecting African supply chains.

They are all part of a new generation of leaders creating, transforming and defining The Project Economy.

Get ready to meet the Future 50.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

In this special episode, we’re introducing you to a few members of PMI’s Future 50, a group of rising young project leaders who are already making their mark with bold thinking—and bold projects. They represent the full spectrum of regions, industries and achievements—and we’re amazed by these incredibly talented people. You can check out the full list in the latest issue of PM Network® or by visiting PMI.org/Future50.

Before we turn to our guests, we want to thank our sponsor, PMTraining.com. From live virtual classes to online on-demand courses, PMTraining prepares students for popular PMI certifications, including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class. To take advantage, head to PMTraining.com/podcast.

With Gen Z entering the workforce in real numbers and more millennials taking on management roles, there’s a real youthquake hitting the project world. The Future 50 are leaders in sparking that transformation. These young project leaders are innately open to new ideas and looking for workplace cultures that applaud learning, risk taking and inclusion. They’re also used to speed—in their work as well as career advancement. When you combine those ideas, you get a picture of project leaders who aren’t content to perform the same tasks over and over for years on end, who want their companies to value diversity and collaboration, and who want to use their influence for social good.

Now let’s turn to our first Future 50 interview with a U.S. aerospace engineer whose work with satellites has helped to save lives and to avert environmental disaster. Kenneth Harris II, senior database lead engineer for the Joint Polar Satellite System program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, spoke with Projectified® reporter Diego Wyatt about his career journey and his take on what the future looks like for young project leaders.

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DIEGO WYATT

You started working at NASA more than 10 years ago when you were only 16 years old. Tell me, what do you love about your work? 

KENNETH HARRIS II

I love how cutting-edge and how wide my work spreads, and I’ll explain. Cutting-edge in terms of dealing with space exploration, dealing with working on these next-generation satellites that can help predict weather patterns, that can help save lives. The mission I worked on now helped track Hurricane Dorian—I think that was the last one—help track its trajectory which helped save a bunch of lives before it made landfall. It helped to monitor the Amazon rainforest fires as well as the Australia bushfires. So just working on technology like that on a day-to-day basis is amazing to me. It’s amazing to have the opportunity to not only work on a project like that, but to lead a group on that project.

And the second thing, as far as the work being broad, is that space is not just something that is owned by the U.S. It’s not something that’s just owned by America. So I’ve had the opportunity to work with international partners from JAXA to ESA to the German space agency to Poland’s space agency. It’s a collaboration of different organizations coming together for one unified goal, to explore and tap into the unknown, I’ll say. It’s an amazing experience. It’s a very humbling experience. And I just love what I do.

DIEGO WYATT

What really inspired you to get into this field?

KENNETH HARRIS II

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was my dad. He’s an engineer at NASA. He went to school around here locally. He graduated from Howard, and then he went on to get his master’s degree. And in the middle of getting his master’s degree, I was born. He put that dream on hold for a while and still worked at NASA. And just coming up, I was able to, some people call it shadowing, but I was literally just coming from school. And because he worked after school, I was at NASA with him, so I’d be at his office doing homework. I knew his co-workers at a very young age. Just being able to see his work, seeing what he did, seeing projects he worked on. I was able to go to launches for NASA, which was really cool. I know a lot of people don’t have that experience. I was able to enter these mission control rooms at a very young age.

I had that support system. So when I did struggle with these math courses, when I did struggle with these science courses, it wasn’t just an immediate, “Well, I’m just going to do this to check the box to say that I got through the course and then get through school.” It was actually, “Okay. I spent so much time on this that I actually now enjoy math courses. I now enjoy science courses, and now I’m going to try to do it in an internship. Okay, now I’m going to try to do it as my major. Okay, now I’m going to try to do it as my career and further degrees, XYZ.” So, it’s definitely my dad and the mentors that I’ve had throughout my life.

DIEGO WYATT

You’re currently a senior engineer on international space missions, among other things you do. What are some of the lessons learned that you’ve taken away about leadership during your time at NASA?

KENNETH HARRIS II

I’d say the thing I’ve most learned over the course of my tenure at NASA is that, this is really any part of life. All leaders are different. They have different styles of leadership. And I feel like from different leaders that I’ve learned and also worked under, I feel as though that’s how I really crafted my own specific leadership style. The failure aspect of trying to teach my mentees and different members of the team is one of the biggest things that I took from the different lessons I’ve learned.

I feel as though the leadership skills I have didn’t come specifically from NASA. They definitely, definitely help because it’s such a diverse place to work. It’s such an intense place to work, specifically when you’re dealing with satellites that are on orbit. Satellites that these million-, billion-dollar projects that are floating around beyond your grasp, that you have to rely on the computer systems, the ground systems to be able to operate.

DIEGO WYATT

What do you envision for the future of project teams at NASA? What does that look like to you?

KENNETH HARRIS II

I feel as though across the board, because NASA is comprised of a number of different centers, I think project teams will start to become a lot more specialized, I could say. In terms of project leaders, I think the transition is starting in terms of our generation of folks getting into those leadership roles, even if they’re some of the earlier-on leadership roles, they’re being groomed and developed to replace the people that are currently in those roles. And I think a big shift will definitely come in terms of what’s going on on a global scale in terms of diversity and inclusivity. I think that shift will also be seen in the next few years.

DIEGO WYATT

What are your hopes for the next generation of leaders in STEM?

KENNETH HARRIS II

I really just more than anything want the next generation to know it’s about representation. I know some people are kind of hesitant to step forward and talk about their experiences in the field and to give a piece of their time in order to impact someone else. But again, it’s not about you. It’s about who’s next. It’s about pouring into someone that you see potential in, because you have to realize at some point you in the field now are going to leave the field, and you want someone there that has embodied and will embrace the projects that you’re on, the ideals that you have and continue the work in the way that you’re doing the work. So that’s what I do, and that’s what I look for in mentees. I want them to be passionate. I want them to be confident. I want them to be bold in everything they do. I, most importantly, I want them to pay it forward.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Next, let’s meet another member of PMI’s Future 50: Geetha Gopal, whose leadership and data-driven AI chops have made her a rising star at two multinational giants operating in Singapore. She spent most of the past decade at automaker Daimler and in 2019 made the move to electronics manufacturer Panasonic.

Projectified®’s Ben Bowman spoke to Geetha about becoming a champion for AI within these global organizations.

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BEN BOWMAN

Your work focuses on AI and machine learning. What’s the value of that sort of technology to an organization?

GEETHA GOPAL

In very simplified terms, all our organizations come with vast amounts of data that are untapped. The core is the data that the companies already have. The essence lies in tapping this data and providing meaningful solutions for the organizations. So I think that’s the starting point for a lot of organizations, at least the ones that are just embarking on their transformation journeys or technology journeys. Once they start understanding their data and segregating their data, and once they start getting the hang of it, then there’s a lot that they can do from that. So I think the maturity comes over time.

BEN BOWMAN

When you’re talking about AI, a lot of people might be worried that the rise of the robots could take away their jobs. Should we be worried, or are the worries overblown? How do you see humans working alongside machines?

GEETHA GOPAL

I do not think that we have the maturity in AI and machine learning technologies at the moment that could overpower human intelligence or human capabilities. From my own experience, I can confidently say that we are pretty much creating the surface. So there’s a whole iceberg in there that I don’t think we have the capabilities in terms of technologies and intelligence to tap on to yet.

We do not have the maturity at the moment, I believe, for artificial intelligence or machine learning taking over our jobs yet. Yes, there are certain jobs that can be easily automated or done by the technologies that are available or that are evolving. AI will free up a lot of our efforts. Machine learning will make us take sensible or guided decisions, better decisions. And that will also free up our resources to handle more strategic things, to spend more time with our stakeholders and to manage our risks better.

BEN BOWMAN

When you talk about introducing advanced technology, you are essentially a change agent within organizations, but sometimes there can be tension or a reluctance to change. So how do you navigate that?

GEETHA GOPAL

There are people who want change but who get stuck in environments where they are not able to do much, and at one point of time, they become silent to just do their work and wait for change to happen. And then there are other types of people who are totally reluctant to change and who look for opportunities to bring the ideas down, and that’s where most of the good ideas and initiatives and people who want to create change actually fail.

I always believe that senior management and top management support is very, very essential for any change to happen in an organization, any project to be successful. And how do you navigate tough environments or tough people is basically tap on to the power that comes from those who support you. People do not complain for the sake of complaining. Listening or trying to critically evaluate why this resistance is coming, where this resistance is coming from, a lot of times helps. That’s another way of seeing things, tapping on to the power that you have from the people who bless you with what you do and also giving an ear to those who oppose you, and there’s always a lot that can be done by showing results.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Sometimes the way forward for tech advocates like Geetha is to convince their organizations to embrace the future and scrap their time-worn analog ways for new modes of working. Other times, the best implementation of technology is when it’s done alongside more established strategies, like conversations and relationships.

That hybrid approach defines the business model of our next guest, another Future 50 honoree, Miishe Addy, co-founder and CEO of the Ghanaian logistics company Jetstream Africa.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

You’ve lived most of your life in the U.S. and, as of just a few years ago, you were running a Silicon Valley startup that had nothing to do with logistics. So how did you end up in Ghana, building this particular company?

MIISHE ADDY

I think Ghana was always in my heart but not on my résumé. I’m half Ghanaian, half American. So my dad grew up here in Accra and spent the first 20 years of his life here. He moved to the States and met my mother, and they raised us with just a real tight link between our family in Ghana and our family in the U.S., so I was always hearing about the situation in Ghana. And in my mind, it just seemed like an exciting place to be that was very warm and comfortable, but I didn’t see much economic opportunity here. Even though I wanted to be here and hang out with my cousins and have the experience that they were having, I really did see myself as, you know, an American person, an American businessperson, someone who’s going to get their education and build their career in the United States.

But about, I think six years ago, I got really interested into tech entrepreneurship. And I did a startup in California and kind of got the bug. The startup that I was working on did not work out, but it kind of opened up my eyes to all of the problems in the world that could be solved with technology, and I think that the African continent is just a prime place for that. There’s so much low-hanging fruit. There’s so many problems that relate to finance, lending, agriculture, logistics, like the very, very basics of development that can be accelerated with technology. So that’s what actually brought me to the continent, and Ghana was the obvious place for me to be, in part because my family was here and there was just a budding entrepreneurial scene in West Africa.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Other organizations have been successful with tech-based logistics companies, but you decided that a purely tech-focused approach wasn’t necessarily going to work on the ground or on the docks in Ghana. Why did you decide to pursue your hybrid model?

MIISHE ADDY

We basically came to it by solving for the functions or the jobs to be done based on the experience that the customer wanted. Many of our earliest customers were capable of finding buyers or exporters from West Africa. They were capable of finding buyers through WhatsApp and Facebook, but they couldn’t figure out how to ship affordably to them. So, we basically said, “Look, we’ll work with you to get this experience that you want. You want a certain price per kilo, and you want the cargo to be there within a reasonable time.” And then we figured out basically how many different companies and which types of companies we would have to contract with in order to create those supply chains.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is one of those insights that it sounds intuitive, but then actually building out a tech product that when you say relational, I think that also means a lot of company-to-company, location-to-location idiosyncrasies. How do you sort of build software to accommodate all of the above?

MIISHE ADDY

It’s really about the integration of software. And I think that was a key learning is that when we first started, we thought we could build some really cutting-edge AI machine learning stuff. And I do think that that’s a potential opportunity in the future, but right now the challenging things for so many companies in so many different industries in Africa is not the tech; it’s the distribution and the adoption of the tech.

So taking things that already exist and adding your own sort of twist and then distributing it to people who don’t use any other app other than WhatsApp on their phones. So there is great smartphone penetration here in Ghana, but many people don’t use business apps the same way that folks in the U.S. or Europe would. And so that sort of distribution problem, how do you get people to actually use the app and adopt it? That’s actually one of the trickiest challenges for tech companies in Africa.

So for us, it was really about designing a user experience that allowed for Jetstream to have its own agent, be sort of like an interface between the customer and the actual app. There’s an example of a feature in our technology which enables our ground laborers to take a photo of the cargo that they’ve received and append that photo to something we call a cargo receipt, which is basically a record of all of the inventory that we have collected for the shipper. And that record is sometimes the only record the shipper has. They’re not taking inventory themselves, and so that they can send that record to their buyer along with a photo that gives the buyer confidence that the cargo is actually moving through the supply chain.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

These members of the Future 50 represent a wave of change and talent around the globe. The lead story in PM Network®’s Future 50 issue discusses this youthquake that’s reshaping the future and accelerating innovation. I caught up with the story’s author to see how this is transforming The Project Economy.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

I am excited to welcome back a friend of the podcast Tegan Jones, who contributed a feature story on the youthquake for this issue of PM Network® on the Future 50—one that not only highlights the individual talent that is powering the next generation of project leadership, but also some of the trends as more young workers make their way into the field and change the way that organizations and teams operate. So, Tegan, welcome.

TEGAN JONES

Hey, thanks for having me, Steve. I’m glad to be back.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

One of the themes in your piece, you describe a shift in organizational values that is especially relevant to project teams, one that moves away from an emphasis on perfection, getting everything right, and rewards risk-taking and stretching, continuous learning, innovation, those sorts of themes. And I wonder, based on what you’re hearing, what does that look like on the ground within project teams? How do they incorporate and emphasize that new value and focus?

TEGAN JONES

There’s a couple of things that are driving this trend. One is that we see, of course, the ever-recurring trend of digitization. We’ve got digital transformation and advancement in all of these different fields. It’s making the speed of business move up, and it’s creating this interconnectedness, right, around the globe.

But then, separately, you’ve got this new generation of project team members, project leaders coming into the fold. And they have a totally different type of energy. They have new ideals. They’re not the same type of workers that we’ve seen in the past. Right? And they are really fueling this push, this organizational evolution where we’re seeing a lot more of these stretch goals, we’re seeing a lot of change. So one of the reasons that they’re fueling this change is because they come into the workplace and they don’t necessarily see the status quo as something that they want to maintain. They see the world as something that’s constantly changing and that they want to be a part of that change. They don’t accept that slow, incremental progress is the way to go. They think that’s a recipe for disaster. They want to see their impact, and they want to see it now.

So what we’re seeing on the ground, that means is that these young people are hungry to continually learn and to stay up to date on new technologies and to implement those new technologies if they see that their organization is falling a little behind. They want to bring the people around them up with them too, right? So they want to do these new things. They want to encourage other people to work in the way that they think to be the smartest, the most efficient, the fastest and what’s going to position everybody for success.

And how well that works out for an organization really just comes down to how well that organization is set up to enable change, right? Whether their structures are flexible or whether they’re strict and firm and hierarchical. And so that is a bit of a mixed bag, but we’re seeing that the organizations that do enable young people to kind of do what they think makes the most sense, give them a little bit of a free rein, we’re seeing that these young people are bringing a lot of new things to the table, and they’re able to deliver some pretty impressive, sometimes very surprising, project results.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

So in the case of, say, a software company where everyone is 30 or under, you’re able to sort of bring in all this new-guard approach and have it work itself out coherently. In an organization where you’ve got youthquake project team members alongside the old guard who established the status quo, that seems like a recipe for some tension. How are teams that have multiple generations of people sort of getting everyone to play nicely together and get the best of all worlds?

TEGAN JONES

So one thing that I think it’s important to understand is that younger project team members kind of speak agile as a native language; that is their first language, almost. They want to work that way. They want to work in an iterative manner. They want to learn from what they have completed and use those learnings to inform what they do next. And a lot of times we see older team members who really want to do things, get it done, focus on the deadlines. And of course, it is a broad generalization. But it’s important to realize that, of course, both sides of the table have a lot to offer one another. And so I think that that’s what we’re seeing on teams that are most successful is that they kind of let go of their individual priorities in terms of their ways of working and try to understand what is the goal that’s in front of me? What are we trying to achieve? What is the overall organization’s way of working, and how can we bring to the front the different tactics that work?

And what’s great about younger project talent is that they’re very flexible, and really they’re focused on the outcomes. That’s what they want to see, they want to be successful. They really care about checking that box, getting the gold star, and that drives them to be really focused on results. And so if they are convinced that doing something a way that’s different than maybe what they thought would work best, once you win them over, they’re going to do it your way. It’s not about ego; it’s about results.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

If you’re feeling inspired after meeting three of the world’s top young project leaders today, let me remind you we have 47 more waiting within the pages of PM Network®’s Future 50 issue. I encourage you to grab a copy or see all the profiles online—plus some exclusive digital content—at PMI.org/Future50.

Thanks again to our sponsor, PMTraining.com. From live virtual classes to online on-demand courses, PMTraining prepares students for popular PMI certifications, including the Project Management Professional, or PMP. Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class. To take advantage, head to PMTraining.com/podcast.

NARRATOR

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